America’s Response to Shaquille O’Neal
with Racial-Sexual Anxiety
By Kil Ja Kim
Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s
racial comments about Houston Rockets’ Chinese-born (and
recent immigrant) Yao Ming has become well publicized.
On June 28, 2002, O’Neal said, “Tell Yao Ming…”
and then made what are described in Asian American circles as
racial “Chinaman noises.”
That is, he made sounds that reflect what the non-Asian
public would characterize as the sounds that Asian people speak. In short, O’Neal relied on common racial characterizations
of Asian Americans, which, in this case, emphasizes what is
considered the “foreign” and therefore “unintelligible”
aspects of Asian American culture and language.
O’Neal’s comment has been played over and over by different
radio stations, sports commentators have chimed in on news radio
programs and in the printed press, listservs have bounced around
different responses, Asian American publications such as AsianWeek
and Asian American Movement E-Zine, have commented on the
situation, and there is currently a petition letter addressed to
National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern
circulating among Asian American listservs.
As of this writing, there were 4,317 signatories to this
writer was not one of them.
It is not
that I am not concerned by this racial characterization of Asian
Americans. My own
life as an Asian American woman is certainly shaped and
structured by this racial characterization.
So too, of course, are the lives of many people who are
structurally situated similarly to me as Asian Americans.
Further, I am not supportive of any ideological sentiment
that reflects and reproduces American ideology, which to me, is
not about freedom and liberty, but is one of violence and
containment through various dimensions of racism, (hetero)sexism,
classism, and homophobia.
I say all
of this to say that I am not in support of O’Neal’s comments
about Yao, just as I was not in support of O’Neal calling the
Sacramento Kings “queens” because both comments reflect a
reliance on an American logic that demonizes that which is
non-normative racially and sexually.
So why did
I not sign the petition letter?
Why am I not joining in the calls for O’Neal to
apologize or to be properly punished?
have to do with my concerns about how Asian America is framing
Blackness, Black people, and Black politics in their response to
O’Neal’s comments. These
concerns have to do with the ways in which the criticisms of
O’Neal reflect Asian America’s racist and sexist anxiety
about Black people generally, and in this case, Black men
writers have relied on a racist and sexist image of Black men in
their analysis of O’Neal’s comments.
For example, in his widely circulated January AsianWeek
), author Irwin Tang calls O’Neal a “brute.”
In a January 14 circulated op-ed, Sacramento Bee
writer Diana Griego Erwin describes O’Neal as “hulking.” (http://www.sacbee.com).
that O’Neal has a large build and is tall—standing at seven
feet—is not the point. What
I find disturbing is that in order to provide a certain image of
Yao, who we are to understand is representative of Asian America
as a political entity, Asian Americans (and our supporters) must
rely on racist and sexist images of Black people, and in this
case, Black men specifically.
most disturbing is that I do not even think we consider how
violent our considerations, perhaps our fixation with Black
men’s bodies are in our Asian American claims.
Yet we rely on the image of Black people as loud,
aggressive, and physically and politically threatening in our
depictions of Blacks “attacking” Asian Americans.
As such, it is necessary for the writers to depict
O’Neal as “hulking” and as a “brute” in order to
convince the readers that Asian Americans have a just claim.
Yet we read or hear little of the fact that O’Neal is
actually five inches shorter and therefore, physically smaller
than Yao. This
physiological fact would not serve our racial and sexual
imaginations, which attempts to depict a struggle between a
Chinese David in the face of a Black Goliath, and in the
process, create a story of racially weak person versus racially
strong, even scary giant.
subsequent result of this framing is that we turn a blind eye
towards the fact that the image of the Black man as
hyper-masculine is racist and sexist. Instead, we believe this image is really true and rely on
this image in order to situate ourselves as “vulnerable” and
“politically weak” Asian Americans.
As such, we do not challenge our racist and sexist
construction of Black men, nor do we deal with the fact that we,
as Asian Americans, have helped to reproduce a structure of
violence against Black male bodies.
But it is precisely the image of Black hyper-masculinity
and beliefs in Black male physical prowess and violence, an
image that affects Black straight men and queers alike, that
victimizes Black males.
are Asian Americans careless with the use of this racist and
sexist imagery of Black men, we also appear to envy it.
This is evident in broader discussions of Asian American
masculinity generally and in the responses to O’Neal in
example, Tang’s AsianWeek column ends with the author
issuing the following challenge to O’Neal: “Come down to
Chinatown, Shaq. You
disrespect Asian Pacific America, and we will break you down.”
this is from the same man who labeled O’Neal a “brute.”
What is interesting is how Tang strategically uses
Chinatown as an image of both Asian American
“emasculization” and Asian American power.
To do so, he must “hyper-masculinize” Chinatown in
much the same way he does O’Neal.
To me, this shows a sexual-racial anxiety that
characterizes most discussions of Asian American masculinity and
sexuality more generally. That
is, it appears that not only does Tang accept the racist and
sexist image of O’Neal as a Black male brute, but he also must
make Chinatown (and Asian American men) appear as potentially
violent and hyper-masculine in order to “break down”
is that Tang does not challenge racist and sexist constructions
of both Asian American men and Black men.
Instead, he relies on both to make his argument.
Yet Tang must rely on the racist and sexist construction
of Black men to masculinize Chinatown as a site and symbol that
can take on the “brute.”
This is not to suggest that Chinatown is not a site of
violence, whether due to it being a place of international
division of labor, gentrification, lack of viable housing
options, containment by police agencies particularly Immigration
and Naturalization Services and Licenses and Inspections, along
with all of the terrible aspects of hyper-masculinity that
characterize patriarchal family structures and capitalist
does it suggest that there are not individuals who indeed
identify and are committed to a patriarchal, heterosexist and
capitalist identity in Chinatown (or in Asian America, for that
matter). What I
question is how Tang must masculinize Chinatown in order to see
it as a symbol that can appropriately “take on” a
“brute” like O’Neal with the anticipated result of
“breaking” him down.
racist image of Black male sexuality also informs the idea that
Asian Americans are not viewed as threatening enough, an idea
that Tang discusses, as do others.
For example, consider a statement made in a letter to the
editor posted recently on the Asian American Movement
“I am going from one Asian site to another in hopes of
arousing anger and a sense of disgust to provoke Asians and
sound minded non-Asians to wake up and realize that unless we
are actively vocal and tenacious about our plight in America,
Asians will always receive the second-class treatment and viewed
as weak wimps and nerds by rest of America.”
wonder is, Asian Americans are not threatening enough…compared
to whom? It appears
that the answer is Black people.
Asian Americans seem to think that we need to be more
threatening, just like Blacks.
As such, we do not question the function of racist and
sexist image of Blacks as threatening for the expansion of state
violence through policing, prisons and state-sanctioned death.
Instead, we appear to desire the very aspect of Blackness
that we also appear to hate.
That is, we want to be more vocal, more aggressive and
more powerful just like Blacks, because supposedly, Black people
have been able to do so successfully.
Indeed, the desire by many Asian Americans for Yao to do
well in the NBA comes from both a racial and sexual desire for
Asian American men to break into what is considered a “Black
men’s game,” and in the process, prove that they are “real
men,” i.e., hyper-masculine.
this image of Black people is not only racist and sexist, it
also reproduces a certain image of reverse racism against
non-Blacks by Black people.
This idea of Black racism is evident in the responses to
example, the aforementioned writer of the letter that appeared
in the Asian American Movement E-Zine says, “I think
for too long there has been a double standard in American media
when it comes to blacks and the racist comments they make.
If an Asian or white or any other group would have made
similarly racially insensitive comments about blacks, the black
community (i.e., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP, by
the way it should be NAABP because really they only represent
the blacks and not all people of color like their acronyms [sic]
suggest ‘National Association of Advancement for Colored
People’) would be in an uproar.
Why isn’t Jesse Jackson or the ‘honorable’ Al
Sharpton up in arms when blacks make racist comments?
Just pure hypocrisy, that’s why!”
does this writer need a history lesson to understand the
establishment and trajectory of the NAACP and the term
only does he make an implicit attack on Black political
leadership, which is often viewed as too showy, disingenuous,
selfish, and subsequently too successful by non-Blacks. What we
also have is an image of Blacks as the “true” or “new”
racists. This is
exemplified by the likening of O’Neal to the recently retired
Senator Trent Lott (who praised Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s
anti-desegregation platform) that has been made in different
commentaries, notably those by Tang and Erwin.
Yet I do
not think that Black people have become less the subjects of
racist-sexist comments or depictions, or that Black political
leaders have been met overwhelmingly favorably.
Nor do I think that Black people’s position as the most
detested, despised and contained racial group since the
foundation of the US has changed, even as the positions and
placement of other ethnic and racial groups, including Asian
Americans, have. Nor
do I, unfortunately, think Asian America as a political project,
really cares that this is the case, and if anything, must resist
this analysis to make its political claims.
the image of Black racism against non-Blacks seems to shape
Asian America’s racial claims, as it does the rest of
country has become even more neo-conservative as it moves
towards a so-called color-blind perspective in the post-1965 era
that has anchored contemporary racist projects by whites (and
some Asian Americans and Latino/as), such as the current
dismantling of affirmative action.
neo-conservativism is not just against the consideration of race
and racism, per se. This
neo-conservativism is also inherently anti-Black.
The impetus for doing away with race and for ending talks
about racial power, discrimination and oppression was, and is in
response to the aggrandized fears of Black mobility, access and
power. This fear of
Black power, or more aptly put, of Blacks actually experiencing
some aspect of non-slavery, has always been met with retaliatory
violence, whether it was in the forms of lynching, the shutting
down of Reconstruction and the movement of Union troops out of
the South, the burning and murdering of Black towns and
economies such as Rosewood and Oklahoma City, legal mandates
such as the Dred Scott decision, hyper-segregation, or the
creation and expansion of the current police state and the
prison industrial complex.
component of this anti-Black neo-conservativism is the belief
that racism against Blacks is a thing of the past or has been
we assume that Blacks should be grateful for the institutional
gains they now have. An
implicit aspect of this perspective is the idea that Blacks now
have political power and therefore have the same power as whites
to be racist. As
such, Blacks can now be just as racist against Asian Americans
as whites can be.
understanding of racial power is clearly evident in the claims
made against O’Neal. What
has been overwhelmingly demonstrated with this situations is
that if anything, Asian Americans need the racist and sexist
image of Black people, and in this case, Black males, to make
their claims. That
is, we need a group to both chastise and hold up as models of
how one makes political claims.
Black people are that group.
The result is, we have hatred towards Blacks for being
too loud, too pushy, too vocal, too visible, and for overall,
taking up too much space politically.
We talk about how Blacks don’t share, or we say
statements such as, “people need to realize that a lot of
groups are racially oppressed” or, “Blacks aren’t the only
ones who experience racism,” or, the popular “we need to go
beyond black and white.”
We even hijack Ralph Ellison’s consideration of
Blackness as invisible as he wrote in 1952’s Invisible Man
to make our claims against Blacks, who we purport to be
successfully visible (never considering whether they are
actually viewed as human).
Consider how many times Asian Americans have been able to
successfully get resources, whether it be college programs,
funding for non-profits, or sometimes just sympathy for our
causes by using these claims.
In short, consider how often Asian Americans have
attempted to make claims in opposition to Blacks and
subsequently how we have been fairly successful at doing so.
It appears that Asian America cannot leverage our claims
without relying on the image of Blacks as over-powerful and
process, we lay out the following agenda for Asian American
politics: we must be more aggressive, more physical, more
“scary,” and more “threatening.” The
fact that we rely on the racist caricatures of Blacks fails to
concern Asian America. The fact that these racist caricatures help organize and
structure the lives of Black bodies—even rich people like
O’Neal, who, as the editor of the Asian American Movement
E-Zine puts it, “is not just another African American on
the street”—seems to be of little concern to us.
The fact that Black men are the victims of this racist
and sexist caricature as clearly shown by the containment they
experience through state violence such as police violence,
imprisonment and death seems to be of little concern. The fact that Asian Americans have yet to figure out how to
make our claims against white supremacy, capitalism and (hetero)sexism
(if we have these claims at all) without attempting to silence,
displace, and in some ways, hijack Black political claims seems
to be of little concern. The
fact that despite supposedly not being heard effectively, we
have somehow been able to live lives structurally different from
Blacks in terms of state violence, racial and sexual
characterization, etc. appears to be of little concern.
the fact that Asian Americans work with white institutions and
white people to police Black people (and many times can be
successful at doing so) seem to be a concern of ours.
Yet this is precisely what Asian Americans are attempting
to do in this case. Calling
on NBA Commissioner David Stern, a white man who also has
institutional power, to chastise and punish O’Neal is a form
of policing Black men just as Asian grocers calling on police to
protect their stores in Black neighborhoods is.
says women can’t police Black men?
Think about California Democrat Assemblywoman Judy
Chu’s letter to Stern, in which she demanded the commissioner
“prevent and publicly punish” racist behavior from players.
The desire to have O’Neal “publicly” punished by a
white man is disgusting, as is Chu’s suggestion to Stern that
O’Neal be forced to perform community service in LA’s
Chinese American community.
closing, it is not that I am not concerned or bothered by
O’Neal’s statements. Nor
do I want Asian Americans to not fight back against capitalism,
white supremacy, (hetero)sexism,
and homophobia. I
am just not interested in promoting a response and a political
agenda that reproduces racist and sexist constructions and
treatment of Black people generally, and in this case, Black men
specifically. I am seeking for an Asian American response to O’Neal that
can put forth a claim and an analysis that does not reproduce,
and call for violence towards Black people.
Perhaps, though, this request, rather this plea, may be
18, 2003 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kil Ja Kim is a
writer, educator and activist currently living and working in
Philadelphia. Her intellectual and political interests are
Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian
is currently working on
working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics
in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant
business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US.
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